Podcast: Robots to map marine life in key fishing areas

Scientists launch a marine robot

NOC scientists launch a marine robot in the Scilly Isles

14 October 2014 by Richard Hollingham

This week in the Planet Earth podcast, Russell Wynn and Maaten Furlong of NERC's National Oceanography Centre (NOC) tell us about a just-launched fleet of marine robots that will map ocean life in key fishing grounds off the southwest tip of Britain, in a trial heralded as the start of a new era of robotic research at sea.

To assist those who find text-based content more accessible than audio, a transcript of this recording is available below.

Richard Hollingham: Welcome to the Planet Earth podcast. I'm Richard Hollingham and I am in the control centre for a fleet or marine robots. Now as I speak five robotic craft are somewhere off the coast of south-west England collecting scientific data. Fortunately, I'm the rather warmer and calmer surroundings of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and in one of the conference rooms here which they've converted into a control room - there are maps strewn across a table almost as if it is a war room and there are two people sitting behind laptops in one corner typing away, and then at the centre a large flat screen monitor with a whole load of squiggles all over it. Those will hopefully become clear in a moment because I'm joined by chief scientist for the project, Russell Wynn and the engineer responsible for the fleet, Maaten Furlong.

Now, Russell, explain this flat screen television and the squiggles all over it. What are we looking at here?

Russell Wynn: Over the last week we have deployed a series of marine robots from the Isles of Scilly of the south-west of the UK. These vehicles once they are deployed we have no direct human control over them. All of the control is remotely via satellite communications, so those communications give us an indication of where the vehicles are, we get little bits of data back from the vehicles, such as what the weather is doing or some of the scientific sensors and data they are collecting and that enables us to manage that fleet of vehicles as a complete entity.

So on the screen at the moment what we can see really is the fleet in action. It is currently operating west of the Isle of Scilly, a few tens of miles offshore and as we speak at the minute we've got five vehicles still in play.

Richard Hollingham: Now these lines represent those vehicles so we've got, what, a green line, a red line and an orange line and this is the path they've taken from... you've zoomed out now and we can see the Isle of Scilly and this is the place they are heading out... basically they are heading west.

Russell Wynn: Yeah. Today is quite exciting because we're just at the point now where we've got enough confidence in four of the vehicles that we're sending them off on the start of a long journey across the shelf out to the south-west and some of these vehicles are going to be travelling another 100 to 300 miles before they finish that journey.

Richard Hollingham: Now I mentioned the two people that are tapping away on laptops in the corner of this room and they're your pilots?

Russell Wynn: The surface vehicles need a bit more intense piloting, so obviously they're at the surface all the time. If there is shipping activity or if there is shipping activity in the area the pilots need to be aware of that and they need to adjust the track of the vehicles according. Also the surface vehicles are more influenced by the weather. Two nights ago we had fifty mile an hour winds, seven metre high waves in this area and some of the vehicles got pushed off course a little bit and it is the pilot's job to bring them back on track.

Richard Hollingham: But you've still got five vehicles out there. What's the thinking behind this project?

Russell Wynn: Each vehicle can do slightly different things and as a result we can sometimes send one vehicle off to target one aspect of the science while the other vehicles will go off and do something else. They all can do basic things like measure the temperature of the water or what the weather is doing for the surface vehicles but they've also got cameras on some of the surface vehicles, they've got instruments that can listen for dolphins and porpoises in the water column and one of them is towing a streamer cable that can actually listen for the noise of the ocean. It can listen for the background noise and this has applications for the Defence sector, for example.

Richard Hollingham: Now, Maaten, this is the first time anything like this has been done in the UK. It's almost a scientific campaign but with multiple robotic craft.

Maaten Furlong: Normally when we deploy these vehicles we will deploy them either singularly or may be a small group of very similar vehicles. So as Russell was mentioning we have some vehicles which will glide through the water column, so we have deployed fleets of these types of vehicles but we haven't deployed this mixed fleet with the surface vehicles and the sub-sea gliders as well.

Richard Hollingham: Some of these are quite curious looking. You've got pictures around the walls here of the various craft you are using. Now some of them are what you called 'gliders', they almost look like a torpedo but others they sit on the surface and people might not have seen anything like that before.

Maaten Furlong: Yeah. So we have effectively three different styles of surface vehicle. One of them looks like quite a large surfboard with solar panels on the top. Another one looks like a canoe with solar panels on the top and the third vehicle which is a bigger vehicle looks like a catamaran with a whole series of solar panels and a big arch with a wind turbine in the middle.

Richard Hollingham: Is this as much as anything a test of these sorts of vehicles because some of them are relatively untried, relatively new technology?

Maaten Furlong: It is both a science trial but I am an engineer so this is an engineering trial as well, so we're actually testing a lot of new technologies, both on the gliders themselves, so the gliders they have a standard sensor fit but we've actually added a little propulsion system to the gliders, so we're testing that. We're also testing two new vehicles as well, so we're actually trialling them for the first time out in the Scilly's and we're also looking at how you can run all of these vehicles together and how we can fuse all the data coming in from these vehicles to display it on the big screen so we can see exactly how the fleet is manoeuvring.

Russell Wynn: What I've just brought up on the display screen here is just a very simple parameter temperature. The bulk of the ocean in this area is actually cold. It is only below about 35 metres where you get that cold water. Above it is mostly warm and then you get a very narrow band where that temperature goes from about 17 to 11 - so that's about a six degree temperature change across a very narrow boundary. We call this technically the thermocline. It's just an area where you get a very strong change in temperature in the ocean and that is because in summer the ocean in this area warms up and it forms these layers and the thermocline is the most important of those layers.

Richard Hollingham: And that's where the biology hangs out? That's where your fish and your marine mammals, that's where you will expect to find them because that's where the plankton will be. Is that right?

Russell Wynn: So in this area if we then looked at the plankton density, what we would see is we would see a peak at this thermocline and it tends to trap nutrients and it tends to aggregate plankton in that area. So as a result you tend to get more fish there, some of the higher predators like dolphins and porpoises will often feed in this layer. And this layer of animals will actually move up and down in the water column on a day/night cycle. In contrast if we went closer to the Isles of Scilly our data is showing us that the waters are much more mixed because of the strong tides in those areas and that means that the food and the animals will be much more distributed through the whole of the water column.

Richard Hollingham: And this is the next stage really, you're looking at the moment at physical characteristics but you want to go on to study biology in this area using the same robotic craft?

Russell Wynn: Yeah, some of the sensors on board are not sending back data, they're just looking at data internally so the Go Pro cameras that we have on the surface vehicles will hopefully have some nice images of sea birds and maybe dolphins at the surface and marine litter etcetera and the instruments that are actually listening for the clicks and whistles of dolphins and porpoises, again, they are internally logging so we will have that. Data. When we recover the vehicle, we will recover the data.

For the second phase of the project which is going to be off Plymouth in the last week of October, we're going to deploy two of the surface vehicles again with a slightly different set of sensors and at the same time we're going to release up to 100 fish, so flat fish like plaice and sole and bigger species like rays with little acoustic and pingers attached to them. These pingers will ping every few minutes and the idea is the surface vehicles will have little acoustic receivers on that can actually swim around at the surface and listen for these tagged fish swimming around underneath them. And the idea is to look at how these fish use marine protected areas south of Plymouth and the surface vehicles can see if those fish wander around that area more widely.

Richard Hollingham: We've come down a few floors now into the glider lab and this is where there are three gliders at the moment laid out almost on operating tables being worked on, and they're called gliders but actually they look more like torpedoes. They are around a metre and a half long, about the diameter of a dinner plate and Maaten there are five robotic vehicles out there at the moment. We've got three gliders here and this is really all part of a much large potential fleet.

Maaten Furlong: It is. So we have five different vehicles at sea at the moment, two of which are actually sub-sea gliders, the other three are autonomous surface vehicles. The gliders that you can see around the lab now... we actually have in preparation at the moment but the total fleet of gliders that we have at the Oceanography Centre is actually about 33 vehicles. Also within the marine autonomous systems fleet within the Oceanography Centre we also have a number of very large AUVs as well as some-

Richard Hollingham: AUVs?

Maaten Furlong: Autonomous Underwater Vehicles. These would typically be deployed from ships and used for looking at the seabed in very high resolution and generating very high resolution maps of the seabed.

Richard Hollingham: Now, Russell, what is the potential of this sort of technology and the tests that you are doing right now?

Russell Wynn: This trial is really a window into a future where we have tens or maybe hundreds of these operating around UK seas. One of the challenges to scientists at the moment operating in a very hostile ocean environment is if you want to get out there with a research ship it is expensive, many thousands of pounds a day, typically, to operate a vessel and in bad weather you don't want to be putting people in that environment, especially in winter for example around the UK. So if you want to capture processes in the ocean, operate maybe over weeks or months and in some of the hostile parts of the world these vehicles give us huge potential to have a persistent presence and a good example would be on Monday night we had a pretty viscous storm in the south-west with winds up to 50 miles an hour, very high waves, and the vehicles carried on operating fine and collecting data. If people were out there on a ship, especially not a very big ship, that wouldn't be a very comfortable place to be and they probably would have had to retreat to a nearby port.

Richard Hollingham: So, ultimately, we're going to see a lot more of these at sea, or rather not see them at sea, they are going to be there?

Russell Wynn: In another ten years time it is likely they will be deployments with double figures and as I say in the future for different purposes whether it is oil and gas monitoring or whether it is looking at collecting weather data, scientific date, defence, you can imagine there may be hundreds and these sorts of vehicles are going to be our eyes and ears in the ocean in the future where the scientists back at base can be collecting data all of the time from much bigger areas than we can at the minute or while in the comfort of your home base.

Richard Hollingham: Russell Wynn and Maaten Furlong, thank you. We will put some pictures of these craft on Twitter and Facebook and for the latest news from the natural world do visit Planet Earth online. I'm Richard Hollingham and that's the Planet Earth podcast from the Natural Environment Research Council. Thanks for listening.